New tools solve leak mystery

Posted: September 02, 2012

It took two years, more than $5,000, and a rotating cast of carpenters, roofers, and contractors to uncover the cause of the leak in my wall. One suggested I might need an exorcism.

But a new kind of home inspector, equipped with a moisture sensor and an infrared detector, discovered the source. Costly, but worth it.

The drama began with one bubble in the middle of a wall on the third floor of my 100-year-old rowhouse. It didn't feel wet. It popped plaster dust. And every month, it tiptoed along another inch.

When a contractor suggested repointing as a fix, I thought, "How expensive could that be?" One very handsome man quoted me $20,000. It was unclear if gold dust and diamonds were involved.

I picked the middle ground of about $5,000. Then I had the inside wall replastered, an additional $800. And I had to move a radiator, $250 more.

But a week later? New bubbles. I would say their laughter bubbled up from the walls, but that's going too far.

Since then, contractors have come and gone. One said he'd replace the windows, without using a power washer to see if they were the problem. Another said I needed to reseal the house. Another said I should just put wainscoting over the problem and pretend it didn't exist.

Every one of them said, "I've never seen anything like it." That made me both proud and worried. My friends and family dubbed it the "weeping wall."

Finally, a mason suggested I call State Wide Leak Repair in Malvern. Owner Tony Gervasi showed up with an odd array of tools. Touching a pronged moisture sensor across the wall, he found readings of 29 percent in the middle, 40 percent in the corner, far higher than the 10 percent to 15 percent the wall should contain considering the heavy rains of the day before.

Using an infrared sensor, he scanned the windows - which most of the contractors had blamed for the leak - but they were dry.

Directed by his gadgets, Gervasi climbed a ladder to the roof and took a closer look across the front wall. The answer? The company that did the repointing had left major gaps in the middle of the decorative tilework that went across the wall - right where the additional bubbles formed. He could slide a knife all the way into the brickwork.

The chimney on the roof also needed work, and the windows a little caulking.

Though Gervasi doesn't do repairs, he make recommendations and takes photos to help contractors zero in on the problem. The $425 inspection took about an hour.

Why so costly? "I'm the only one who does this kind of inspection, who uses these kind of tools," he said.

Infrared and moisture sensors just point him in the right direction, he said. Then he depends on experience and hands-on inspection.

There is certainly demand for his services. Gervasi was called to Ithaca College in New York to find the cause of a leak in a new million-gallon pool. He spent two days diving underwater in a building with no windows. In March.

He began specializing in water leaks as a warranty manager for a custom builder.

"Any time there was a problem, they would come to me and I had to figure out what was going on, how to fix it, and how to prevent it from happening in the future."

He went out on his own 20 years ago and does about 350 jobs a year. Most involve bad stucco work or problems with windows and doors.

Often, people call a mason or a roofer but it isn't a problem they can repair, Gervasi said. So he gets a lot of referrals, "and the problem gets fixed directly."

Now that I know about the holes, I've called back Bill Dolan Masonry, which did the repointing. A week later, Dolan texted me that he'd be "glad to look at the front."

A bubble of hope is forming, but we'll see what happens next.

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